Harold E. Mitzelfelt

1908-1974

Harold Mitzelfelt was born in Farmington, Illinois, the sixth of nine children whose parents were German immigrants. Although music had been an important part of life for his mother's ancestors in Europe, Harold was the only child who would pursue a career in music.

He was precocious from his earliest years, with interests in many areas. He found mathematics and music particularly intriguing and pursued both as he graduated from high school and traveled to Southwestern Junior College in Texas. At the end of his sophomore year he transferred to Union College, where he completed a math major in 1932.

Mitzelfelt was active in all aspects of music, singing as well as playing all of the orchestral string instruments during his undergraduate years. He was introduced to the cello during this time, an instrument that would become his primary performance area. While at SWJC, he met Sylvia Straw, an accomplished musician, and they married in 1930.

His first teaching position was at an Adventist school in Little Rock, Arkansas. At the end of that year, Mitzelfelt received a scholarship for a year of music study in Chicago. Following his study there, he began teaching music at a public school in Eureka, Missouri. Two years later, in 1936, he accepted a position as high school music director in the Salem, Illinois, public high school system.

Mitzelfelt taught in Salem for six years. In that time he developed a band that won in state competitions and was honored by both the Rotary and Lyons clubs. His students also won in regional and national competitions on their instruments.

He was troubled, however, with the inevitable Sabbath conflicts in a public school band program and by the need for his groups to play during Friday evening football and basketball games. When an invitation came for him to serve as head of the music department at Auburn Academy in Washington State in 1942, he accepted.

The next three years were rewarding ones for Mitzelfelt and the academy. A vivacious and energetic person, he revitalized the music program, teaching voice, plus all the wind and string instruments and conducting the chorale, glee club, band, and orchestra. In the midst of this, he studied composition and cello and completed a master's degree in musicology at the University of Washington. By now an accomplished cellist, Mitzelfelt also played in the Seattle Symphony and the Tacoma Philharmonic Orchestra.

Walla Walla College noticed his success at Auburn and when an opening in the band and orchestra position developed in 1945, Mitzelfelt was invited to come to the college. He responded positively but with a condition that the college purchase certain instruments, a stipulation the college board accepted.

When interviewed by the school paper that fall, he stated that he expected to build an orchestra of 50 and a band of 60. For both the band and orchestra, the 1945-47 school years were a serendipitous coincidence of inspired leadership by Mitzelfelt and the influx of many war veterans. His membership projections for both orchestra and band were exceeded, with the band reaching 75, an all-time record, at the beginning of his second year. Because of his intense involvement in the music program, the success of the ensembles, and his extensive knowledge in musicology, he quickly became a beloved and respected music teacher at WWC.

While a student at the University of Washington, Mitzelfelt had developed a close relationship with the George E. Shankel family. Shankel and his daughter, Virginia-Gene, were studying there, having just returned from Africa. Their shared interests in music led to a friendship, and when both the father and daughter were also invited to teach at WWC in 1945, the bond between the families increased. Mitzelfelt and Virginia-Gene collaborated on a number of musical projects during that first year at WWC

After one year, however, the Shankels left, he to serve as academic dean at Atlantic Union College, and she to teach music. Patricia Mitzelfelt Silver, who played in her father's groups during this time, would later recall:

When the Shankels went to AUC, they asked him to come the next year. He would regret that decision. AUC was not as large a school as Walla Walla, and he found it hard to work there. He was not as accepted there as he had been at Walla Walla, where he had been looked up to by the kids he taught.

Both disappointed and disillusioned by what he encountered at AUC, Mitzelfelt left after two years, returning to Auburn Academy. A change in leadership at AA as he arrived, however, left him disenchanted with the situation there. At the end of that year he moved to Madison College in Tennessee, a self-supporting school, where his father-in-law, Walter Straw, was serving as president.

During the next three years Mitzelfelt led the music department and taught a number of other subjects at MC. He also took additional classes in science at nearby George Peabody College and in 1953 at the age of 46, left to study medicine at the University of Tennessee, in Memphis. He completed their program three years later and then joined a medical office in Hendersonville, a suburb of Nashville. A year later, he moved to Ellijay, Georgia, to be a member of the medical staff at a hospital that had just been taken over by the church. He would spend the rest of his life there, becoming a highly respected physician at the hospital.

Even with the change in careers, Mitzelfelt still enjoyed making music, playing his cello in chamber ensembles and community orchestras when possible. He also directed a church choir at the Ellijay SDA church. Additionally, all four of his children have spent their lives as active musicians, Pat pursuing music as a career, becoming a noted college band director in SDA colleges. While Richard, Sylvia, and Vincent have had careers in other professions, music has also been an important part of their lives. Vincent, a physician, established the well-known Mitzelfelt Chorale in Southern California, now known as the Camerata of Los Angeles.

 

ds/2004

Source: Interview with Patricia Mitzelfelt Silver, 2004.